Sentaro has failed. He has a criminal record, drinks too much, and his dream of becoming a writer is just a distant memory. With only the blossoming of the cherry trees to mark the passing of time, he spends his days in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of pancake filled with sweet bean paste.
But everything is about to change.
Into his life comes Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a troubled past. Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. She begins to teach him her craft, but as their friendship flourishes, social pressures become impossible to escape and Tokue’s dark secret is revealed, with devastating consequences.
“THAT’S WHY I MADE CONFECTIONERY. I MADE SWEET THINGS FOR ALL THOSE WHO LIVED WITH THE SADNESS OF LOSS. AND THAT’S HOW I WAS ABLE TO LIVE OUT MY LIFE.”
Translated into English, Sweet Bean Paste is a moving novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship. I cannot even begin to explain the joy (and tears!) that this unassuming little blue and pink book gave me. It made me happy, it made me sad, and it definitely made me hungry.
It’s a touching tale of how food can bring people together and the importance of appreciating the little pleasures in life, but it is so much more than just a book about exquisite Japanese confectionery. As a teenager named Wakana begins to frequent the shop after school, a bond of friendship forms between the trio. Sukegawa explores the friendship between these three generations and different social classes.
Tokue is a mysterious, enigmatic character whose presence lingers long after the story is finished. Suffering from Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, we are given a detailed insight into how people with the disease were treated in Japan. Despite being asymptomatic and ‘cured’ for several years, Tokue’s appearance still bears traces of the disease and, sadly, social discrimination is still alive as the townspeople talk and customers slowly stop visiting the dorayaki shop.
The glimpse into the history of the ostracism those suffering from Hansen’s disease faced in Japan was truly heart-wrenching. Sukegawa takes us to the sanatorium Tokue resides in; exploring the impact isolation had on those forced away from their family, the sense of community between the residents and the myths related to leprosy that were still prominent in Japanese society. I shared the shock, shame and sadness that Sentaro and Wakana felt as they walked through the sanatorium with Tokue, seeing the extremist policies that those with leporsy endured, their confinement and sorrow as their freedom was stolen from them.
My heart ached for Tokue. I admired her calmness and the way in which she forgives and forgets all the horrible things in her life. Instead, opting to soak in all the small moments kindness and beauty that the world has to offer. Through her friendship with Sentaro, she encourages him to look inward and be a better person.
At its core, Sweet Bean Paste is about acceptance; accepting history, accepting people, recognising that every human life has meaning and the possibilities are endless if others are willing to listen and learn. It’s sweet, gentle, earnest.
With pages packed full of charm and food for thought, Sweet Bean Paste is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story about the harshness of a society that stigmatises what it doesn’t understand and the importance of compassion. I’m also pleased to confirm that the movie adaptation, Sweet Bean, is equally as beautiful and poignant.